Food safety: stringent testing welcomed
of Article: http://business.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090413.r-mccain14/BNStory/Business/home?cid=al_gam_mostemail
The Globe and Mail
April 14, 2009 at 7:12 AM EDT
Michael McCain emerged, reputation intact, from a
harrowing food safety crisis which linked his company, Maple Leaf Foods
to the deaths of 21 people last summer. But the ordeal has just begun for
the chief executive officer of Canada's largest meat processor.
Eight months after the first indication that Maple
Leaf's luncheon meat was killing people, Mr. McCain will be on the hot seat
on Monday as he faces parliamentary hearings on the future of Canada's food
The next 60 to 90 days will be critical in shaping
a system that is capable of reducing – but not entirely eliminating – the
risk of repeating last summer's crisis, he told The Globe and Mail's
editorial board yesterday.
Mr. McCain became a household name, and face, last
summer when listeria contamination in a Maple Leaf plant in Toronto was
identified as the source of a widespread outbreak of illness and death.
In the face of a potential public relations disaster, Mr. McCain won
praise for his quick public apology in ads on television and on YouTube,
his willingness to shoulder blame, and rapid action to pull the offending
meat off the shelves.
The hallmark of the Maple Leaf strategy became
clear then: Accept responsibility, exceed expectations, and keep ahead of
public opinion on regulatory action. That approach was evident again
yesterday in what appeared to be a dress rehearsal for the hearings that
begin next week.
“We are going to be advocating more regulation, not
less. More-stringent protocols, not less-stringent protocols,” Mr. McCain
said. “We're going to be advocating more transparency and a stronger role
for government, not a reduced role.”
He was accompanied by the company's new chief food
safety officer, Randy Huffman, whose appointment and position are being
touted as evidence of Maple Leaf's responsiveness to the crisis.
Mr. McCain said he would welcome higher levels of
monitoring and testing for food safety, even with the higher costs Maple
Leaf would likely incur, as long as there is a level playing field.
For example, he expects the same standards to
apply equally across the country, extending to processors regulated by
often less-rigorous provincial rules. In addition, he would expect the same
rules to be enforced at the borders in relation to meat imports.
Mr. McCain acknowledged that Maple Leaf could
never shake the stigma that its meat was the source of the listeria deaths.
“We're going to be attached to the listeria tag forever,” he said. “We are
the listeria people in this country and we recognize that. That's our
penance, if you will, for what happened last year.
“We believe the way to bring meaning to the lives
lost is to go beyond education to almost becoming a listeria nag on these
Mr. McCain said the most passionate debate in the
hearings will revolve around the amount of inspection that should be
required. He argued that actual inspection is not the key to safer food.
Instead, he said, a higher expectation of behaviour should be required by
the players in the system. He pointed out, for example, that there was no
requirement of environmental testing for listeria in Maple Leaf's Toronto
plant before the crisis of last summer.
“There was a recommendation but no requirement,”
he said, maintaining that Maple Leaf was performing tests and accumulating
data far in excess of what was required. “We wish we had known then what we
know today, and we didn't. We feel we could have saved 21 lives in the
Mr. McCain said Maple Leaf's sales volumes have
come back considerably but the company is experiencing “margin
compression.” As it tries to rebuild its business, it has not been able to
pass along commodity-cost increases to consumers. In addition, it has
incurred heavier-than-normal promotion costs to offset the marketing
setback of the tainted meat.
Mr. McCain is a central player in a regulatory
reform process that is moving on three fronts: a more rigorous listeria
testing policy launched this month by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency; a
federal investigation into the crisis headed by former Alberta health
executive Sheila Weatherill; and the hearings by a parliamentary
subcommittee on food safety.
Mr. McCain said no matter what is achieved, there
are no absolute guarantees. “We have to be candid and open and honest to
the Canadian public, as does the industry and government. In the world of
food safety we can do the very best job we can, but zero risk is not
achievable based on what we know today.”